Published: Nov 16, 2012 08:59 PM
Modified: Nov 20, 2012 07:04 PM
HILLSBOROUGH - Neighbors of UNC’s Bingham Facility in rural Orange County are considering their next steps after a panel rejected their call for greater public scrutiny of the animal research facility.
UNC wants to replace a failed septic system at the Bingham Facility, a complex west of Carrboro that has housed dogs and hogs used to study hemophilia and heart disease, among other animals, since the 1970s.
Neighbors, including the grassroots group Preserve Rural Orange, say the university needs a class A special-use permit. The process includes a public hearing, review by the county planning board and approval from county commissioners.
At one time, the county thought the university needed the class A permit, too. In early 2010, county staff told UNC the size of its planned wastewater system required the lengthy, public permit process. Later that year, after communication with the university, the county changed its mind.
Neighbors challenged the reversal in a hearing last week before the Orange County Board of Adjustment. PRO members, facing lawyers for the county planning department and university, argued their case for nearly three hours Monday night. They lost.
Although the county normally requires a special-use permit for a septic system handling more than 3,000 gallons a day – as the university proposes – state law and court rulings say the university’s wastewater project falls outside the county’s jurisdiction.
The project needs only site plan approval and a zoning compliance permit from the county for disturbing the land, the Board of Adjustment ruled in a 5-0 vote. That process requires only staff approval and no public comment.Appeal possible
“We don’t know yet,” PRO executive director Laura Streitfield said when asked if the group will appeal the board’s ruling in Orange County Superior Court.
Not having a lawyer Monday night was a disadvantage, she said, as lawyers for the opposing side lodged at least 10 objections, most of them upheld.
The neighbors paid over $1,300 to file their challenge to the county’s decision. “That’s another issue we learned about in the process,” Streitfeld said. “It really seems it’s a disincentive; maybe that’s the purpose.”
The new wastewater system does need a permit. But that falls under the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is now reviewing the university’s request for a modification of its existing permit for the Bingham Facility.
The state held a public hearing on that request in Bingham Township last summer. Neighbors expressed concern about past leaks of treated wastewater, the septic system’s effect on their wells and health, and a feared expansion of the facility (See sidebar). Associate Vice Chancellor Bob Lowman apologized for mistakes and repeated that the university has dropped plans for expansion because it has no funds for it.‘Determination moot’
At Monday’s hearing Streitfeld tried to ask Michael Harvey, the county’s current planning supervisor, who from the university contacted the county after he asked for a class A permit and whether he agreed with the later decision not to require it.
Lawyers for the county and university objected, and Board of Adjustment Chairman Larry Wright did not allow the questions because they did not deal directly with whether the county’s actions were improper.
On Tuesday, Harvey said he changed his mind about the need for the permit because he got more information.
“I wrote a letter interpreting the code based on the information I had,” he said in a telephone interview. “After six months, it was determined by the county attorney, the planning director and myself that there was additional information that made my (first) determination moot.”
Because it’s a state project, Harvey said, “we don’t have the authority to require a special-use permit.”
Monday’s vote becomes official at the board’s December meeting.